A Ripe Vintage in Margaret River

At the end of a week visiting producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Margaret River, I wound up with a horizontal tasting of the 2007 vintage with producers of fourteen wines.

The 2007 vintage was warmer than usual and Cabernet got ripe everywhere. Given the general reputation of the vintage, I was expecting a fair number of over-ripe wines, but in fact they are rather rare.

Margaret River is a large region, with the heart of Cabernet production focused in the (unofficial) Willyabrup subregion, with wines that tend to be more robust made in Yallingup to the north, and wines that are tighter coming from Wallcliffe farther south. The vintage showed a very wide range of styles, from wines with black fruits classically cut by a herbaceous touch of pyrazines, to lighter wines dominated by red fruits, and in one case with the warm, earthy impression more usually associated with Pinot Noir. Some wines are sourced from more than one subregion, so it’s not always obvious how to relate wines to individual origins (which are not often stated on the label).

Acidity was usually in balance, and in spite of the hot year does not appear to have been over compensated (one of the problems with Cabernet generally in Australia being that winemakers are so fanatically determined to avoid contamination with Brettanomyces that they acidify to a higher level than might be strictly justified by the demands of taste).

This is certainly a very good vintage, but the succeeding vintage in 2008 was more “classical,” and I found I generally gave those wines higher scores in vertical tastings. But 2007 is delicious to drink in the next few years.

Tasting Notes

Fraser Gallop Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon

Slightly piquant black fruit nose changing in the glass to more herbal overtones. Fine, elegant black fruits, real finesse here, black cherries and plums with subtle aromatic overtones, silky tannins giving a fine-grained texture. This gives a classical impression of pure Cabernet fruits poised on the perfection of ripeness. The very faint herbal overtones on the finish should develop in the next few years to bring complexity to the finish. 14.5% 91 Drink to 2022.

Juniper Estate, Cabernet Sauvigno

Slightly austere black fruit nose tending to savory herbal impressions of sage. Precisely delineated black cherry fruits dominate palate, round and elegant, very much the pure varietal character of Cabernet Sauvignon. Firm tannins dry the finish where there is a very faint sensation of herbaceousness. A classic example of the firm style of Willyabrup. More approachable than usual from this estate. Still needs another year, but should age well for a decade. 14.0% 90 Drink 2013-2022.

Voyager Estate, Cabernet-Merlot
Herbaceous opening to the nose with black fruits hiding behind, giving a cool climate impression. Classic impression on palate of black fruits, softer than the nose would suggest, with soft, ripe chocolaty tannins, those notes of pyrazines coming back on the finish, which shows a touch of heat, but overall a fine elegant impression. 14.2%  90 Drink to 2020.

Cullen, Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon

Nose of fresh red and black berries, opening out into fragrant, perfumed nose with hints of roses and violets. Sweet, ripe, elegant, well rounded fruits of black cherries and black plums, with reserved tannins holding back the fruits on the finish. Flavor variety is developing in an elegant style reminiscent of Margaux, but another year is required to let the tannins resolve. There’s some heat on the finish. 14.0% 89 Drink 2013-2020.

Leeuwin Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon

Warm nose with vanillin and nuts hiding black fruit character and giving an impression of new oak, and then some herbaceous notes of pyrazines developing and strengthening in glass. Sweet, ripe, rounded, firm style on palate, with ripeness of fruits evident but cut by herbaceous touch coming back on finish accompanied by nutty notes from new oak. Impression at this point is a little rustic from the new oak. 14.0% 89 Drink 2013-2021.

Woodlands Wines, Nicolas Cabernet Sauvignon

Slightly austere nose with impressions of cherry fruits. Fine, elegant palate of red and black cherry fruits with refined impression from silky, fine-grained tannins. Just a touch of nuts on finish. Nice balance, needs another year to let the tannins resolve and fruit flavor emerge to show a wine some real finesse in a lighter style. 13.5% 89 Drink 2013-2020.

Cape Mentelle, Cabernet Sauvignon

Fresh nose holding back red fruits, with some sweet herbal elements including thyme  developing in glass, making a cool climate impression. Showing nice flavor variety on palate with strawberry and cherry fruits coming out, against a light tannic support. Give this another year to let the dryness of the tannins on the finish resolve, and it should begin to develop a nice savory balance to the red and black fruits. Some heat on finish. 14.0% 89 Drink to 2020.

Moss Wood, Cabernet Sauvignon

Light elegant fresh nose of red fruits, opening out into a spicy and floral nose showing cinnamon and nutmeg. The height of elegance on the palate, but with a flavor profile more like Pinot Noir than Cabernet Sauvignon, with fragrant red fruits pointing towards raspberries and strawberries. The elegance and warmth remind me of Sassicaia in a lighter vintage. This is ready to drink but I suspect that may be deceptive and it will last longer than might be evident at first blush. 14.5% 89 Drink to 2020.

Lenton Brae, Wilyabrup Cabernet Sauvignon

Slightly piquant red fruit impression on nose, leading into soft palate of ripe red fruits of raspberries and cherries. Tannins are fine and silky bringing an elegant impression of fine texture to the finish. As the tannins resolve this will become soft and elegant in a style driven by red fruits. 14.5% 89 Drink to 2019.

Stella Bella, Serie Luminosa Cabernet Sauvignon

Stewed fruit character on nose suggests ripeness, and then pyrazines develop in the glass. More classical on palate than might be suggested by nose, with smooth, ripe, elegant black fruits cut by that touch of herbaceousness that is typical of Wallcliffe (which accounts for a major part of the wine).  Light tannins dry the finish, which shows some heat. This is a light, elegant style, but does it have the stuffing for longevity? 14.0% 88 Drink to 2018.

Ashbrook Estate, Cabernet Merlot

Fresh nose with black fruits behind and slightly nutty cereal overtones (reflecting new oak). Sturdy, ripe, well rounded impression of Willyabrup, blackberry fruits cut on finish by drying effect of tannins, with some faintly herbal impressions on finish. Not a wine for instant gratification but should develop in elegant style over next five years, although there is a slight impression of hollowness on mid palate. 14.0% 88 Drink 2013-2020.

Vasse Felix, Cabernet Sauvignon

Ripe vegetal impression, with mix of ripe, stewed, fruits and green overtones, leading into a palate that mixes ripe and green impressions. Fruits tend to blackberries and blackcurrants, tannins are firm, there is a fairly robust impression on the palate, but some flavor variety is developing. 14.5% 88 Drink to 2019.

Xanadu, Cabernet Sauvignon

Black fruit nose with some faintly over ripe impressions clearing to a faintly herbal impression.Elegant balance on the palate, with blackberry fruits showing a touch of reserve as the tight tannins of the finish cut in. Overall the impression is tight rather than generous and there’s a risk the favor profile will narrow down with age. 14.0% 88 Drink 2013-2020.

Thompson Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon

Soft black fruit nose, with some cereal impressions, turning to riper stewed fruits in the glass giving a warmer climate impression. Warm, sweet, ripe red cherry and strawberry impression on palate, with a lingering sweetness on the finish, and slightly nutty notes coming back. Some heat on the finish. A warm, forward, delicious style – already approachable – but does it have Cabernet typicity? 14.5% 87 Drink to 2018.



Bordeaux and Robert Parker

There is no doubt about Robert Parker’s influence on Bordeaux. Ever since he famously got the 82 vintage right whereas many others got it wrong, he has been by far the most influential commentator on Bordeaux’s annual release. His influence, together with that of other critics, is much increased by fact that most Bordeaux wines are sold en primeur, pushing consumers to make their purchasing decisions long before they have a chance to taste the wines. Unless you want to pay prices that in good vintages can be much higher by the time the wines are available, you have to rely on the opinions of critics who taste en primeur.

In most vintages, chateau owners wait with bated press for the April issue of the Wine Advocate containing Parker’s ratings of the vintage. When Parker did not make his visit to assess the 2002 vintage (because of the Gulf war), Jancis Robinson commented that the Bordelais would now have to relearn the whole art of selling their wine en primeur – without Mr. Parker. But in every other vintage for the past three decades,the Wine Advocate rating has been an important factor in determining the level of interest in the vintage – and presumably in individual chateaux.

There are certainly some striking examples of the effect of the Wine Advocate’s ratings of individual wines. In the 2001 en primeur campaign, Climens was its usual one third above the price of Suduiraut and Rieussec. When it was promoted to a perfect score of  100 in the final review in June 2004, its price differential over the others increased to 200-300% worldwide. In the en primeur campaign for the 1990 vintage, Chateau Montrose’s release price was in its usual position just below Cos d’Estournel. The Wine Advocate’s review of the vintage en primeur rated it highly, but then a re-review after bottling promoted it to 100 points. Immediately its price reached double that of Cos d’Estournel at the auctions.

Both these examples represents cases where the wine was available on the after-market when the 100 point review came out. I’ve been looking for some way to assess whether critical influence has the same effect when the wines are en primeur. I’ve just spent a week in Bordeaux working on my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, but also picking up data for a new edition of my earlier book, What Price Bordeaux?, including en primeur prices from the Place de Bordeaux for recent vintages. The 2008 vintage is an interesting situation that might answer the question.

2008 was a difficult vintage in Bordeaux. Various climatic problems resulted in a rather small vintage, decent but not outstanding in quality. When the en primeur campaign started in April 2009, the world economy was in full retreat and it was not obvious to the Bordelais how they would be able to sell the vintage. The first growths took an unexpected lead. Usually they come out at the end of the campaign, but this year they acted in concert right at the beginning, dropping their prices by almost half from 2007. This was a clear signal to the market to create value. During the second half of April, chateaux came out at prices ranging from two thirds of their 2007 prices to a couple at parity.

The opinion of the vintage expressed in the Wine Advocate at the end of April was a surprise. Mr. Parker declared that the vintage was much better than had generally been appreciated. “I was worried that at best, quality would be average to above average… several French newspapers came out with stories about the deplorable quality of the 2008 Bordeaux vintage,” he said, but then found that “It did not take me long to realize that the 2008 vintage was dramatically better than I had expected… the quality of the 2008 vintage turned out to be excellent, with a number of superb wines that are close to, if not equal to the prodigious 2005 or 2000 vintages.”

Comparisons with 2005 and 2000 might be expected to give a definite lift to the reputation of the vintage. Indeed, chateau proprietors who had already committed their prices felt somewhat rueful that they might have done better to wait. But those who came on the market later did not in fact see much significant gain. Excluding the first growths, chateaux declaring during April averaged 87% of their price relative to 2007, while those coming out in May averaged 94%. The difference is mostly due to a small number of chateaux whose prices were rather low right at the beginning of the campaign, around the time the First Growths came out. If the Wine Advocate report had a direct effect, it was probably to reinforce a view that was already developing that extreme reductions (below 80% relative to 2007) were not necessary. As a scatter plot of the data shows, the majority of chateaux were in a range between 80% and 100% of their 2007 prices throughout the campaign (the First Growths are in red).

Chateau prices for 2008 relative to 2007 during the en primeur campaign

Now I am not suggesting that the Wine Advocate doesn’t have influence: far from it. But I suggest the data show that there are other important factors also, in this case the combination of a poor reputation that (rightly or wrongly) had already been established for the vintage, together with the background of economic difficulties. Generally speaking, when the Wine Advocate presents its view of the vintage, it’s against a background where expectations have already been created, and to some extent the detailed ratings refine and extend those expectations. When it’s reputed to be a great vintage, consumers are looking for assistance in making their decisions. It seems they are not so easily swayed when the news is significantly different from their expectations. In the same way, I showed in What Price Bordeaux? that the most important influence on the relative price of a wine in any year is the price it achieved the previous year. It’s not that criticism isn’t important, but that – with the notable exception of cases where a wine is give a perfect score that lifts it right up out of its usual situation –  critical opinion takes some years to affect the annual pricing.

So the naysayers who worry that Robert Parker (or any other critic) has undue influence over the entire process might take some comfort from the thought that there are many influences at work here. Some of those influences are due to informed opinion, some are due to propaganda, some are due to ignorance, and when you look back years later at the supposed vintages of the century, it’s far from evident that the outcome, however determined, is particularly accurate at the time. Certainly it’s not easy, even with experience, to be sure of judging wines after only six months in the barrel, and if the blame is to put anywhere for the rush of the lemmings, it’s on the system rather than individual critics.